As Syracuse University celebrates 150 years, it’s hard to imagine anyone with a longer, deeper connection to his alma mater than Don Waful. He started his freshman year 85 years ago, and has remained steadfast in his devotion to the University ever since. At 103, Waful attends every football game—in fact, he’s never missed a single game in the Dome since it opened in 1980. You can learn all about Waful with one visit to the Onondaga Historical Association’s headquarters in downtown Syracuse, where his memorabilia is on display: The early years with his loving parents; the Syracuse University years; the Army years; the Syracuse Chiefs years. When you view it all together, one powerfully moving storyline emerges from the timeworn chapters of his remarkable life: Cassie.
She was an Army nurse stationed in Northern Ireland when Waful arrived there as an Army officer in May 1942. He was a handsome, talented musician, a Syracuse University alumnus armed with a bachelor’s degree from the College of Arts and Sciences and a master’s degree from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs . He was playing trombone in a regimental dance band at an Army hospital soiree when he spotted a beautiful woman in a lovely party dress across the room. He set down his trombone and cut in on her partner. They danced. Something about her lit him up inside. “She looked like a sophomore at the Syracuse University Senior Ball,” he recalls. “Like a million dollars.” He ushered her out into the moonlight, and kissed her. After the second kiss, she whispered in his ear, “I don’t even know your name.”
After three dates, he whispered in her ear, “Do you suppose we could make this forever?”
She said yes.
Love at first sight? “Was it ever !” he says.
But there was a war going on, and Waful was a second lieutenant in the First Armored Division. They were being sent to North Africa, charged with helping the Allies build a stronghold in the Mediterranean. For a few weeks, he and Cassie courted, meeting just three times and writing letters every day. “I told her, ‘I know we’re leaving here and I don’t know where we’re going,’” Waful says. “‘I have no idea if I’ll survive this, but if I do, I’ll come back.’ And she said, ‘I will wait for you.’ It was just like in the movies.”
The Darkest Years
On November 8, 1942, he was one of the first American soldiers to land on African soil, and on December 10, Waful and seven of his men were captured by German infantry near Tunis, Tunisia. They were turned over to the Italians and transported to a prisoner of war camp near Naples. Thus began a three-year nightmare. “The biggest thing you suffered was the loss of liberty,” Waful recalls. “You had surrendered to the enemy, and you were completely under the enemy’s control, with walls and barbed wire and guards with guns. You ate at the discretion of the enemy, and it wasn’t very good. It was terrible.”
But the worst pain came at night, in the darkness, when he missed Cassie beyond words. “Oh, how I dreamed about Cassie,” he remembers. He still has all of their letters, which reflect remarkable optimism. “My darling,” he wrote on July 2, 1943, “we will have our whole lives to forget all this. So let’s have courage and keep smiling.”
Memories of home were a good escape from the realities of imprisonment. Born in Newark, New York, Waful and his family moved to Syracuse when he was three years old. Prohibition was in full force and his father had gotten a new job. “Uncle Sam had to hire people to find the bootleggers,” Waful explains. “It was a good job. My dad had to find out who was running the booze shops and chase down the bad guys. He had to carry a gun.”
When Waful was 7 years old, his father died suddenly—a loss from which he’s never completely recovered. “He went right out of our life,” Waful laments. “I was raised without a dad. I was the only one without a father at church, at school, in the neighborhood, at Boy Scouts. Nobody can replace a father.”
Syracuse University Undergraduate
But he had a mother, and he still marvels at the ways she came through for him. “I graduated from high school in 1933,” he says. “These were disastrous years. Nobody had any money, but my family had enough income to survive. For my mother, there was no question that my sister and I were going to get a college education. Syracuse University tuition was $350 a year. Somehow, my mother got the money together. I was Class of 1937—the first class to hold graduation in Archbold Stadium—and my sister was Class of 1940.”
Transportation to campus from their home in Syracuse’s Eastwood neighborhood was the biggest obstacle for a student who didn’t live in a dormitory. “I’d scrounge rides back and forth, and I walked a lot,” he recalls. “So I adopted Hendricks Chapel as a home away from home. You could just walk in—it was open all the time. A place for wandering students like me. They had open house parties, and that was where I met Ginny. She was a sophomore from Buffalo, and I liked her. I spent the rest of my senior year in her shadow.”
Ginny transferred to a college in Massachusetts, but ended up playing an important role in his life more than 60 years later. “Sometimes you recognize that things happen for a reason,” Waful says.
After graduation, Waful wasn’t sure what his next step would be. “All of a sudden I hit the jackpot,” he says. “I got a scholarship from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.” After completing his master’s degree at Maxwell in 1939, he considered law school, but hesitated because war was looming in Europe and he thought he might get a military-related job.
He enlisted in the Army in 1941 and headed to Officer Candidate School. “Right in the middle of our class, Pearl Harbor was hit,” he says. “They put us on the Queen Mary with 11,000 troops. We ventured out into the ocean with the German submarines, and made it to North Ireland.”
This is where he met Olga Casciolini. They called her Cassie.
Life as a Prisoner
He had to survive for her, so he made the most of being a POW. “I was knee deep in entertainment,” he says. Entertainment? In a POW camp? “The Germans cooperated with us as much as they could, because if you’re singing and dancing, you’re not digging a tunnel.” He played trombone and piano in a camp band, putting on concerts for the other POWs. There were also lectures led by prisoners with different areas of expertise. Waful’s contribution was a lecture on the art of community fundraising.
“Our Italian camp isn’t too bad,” he wrote in a journal he would keep throughout his imprisonment. “We live in wooden barracks with real beds, mattresses, heavy blankets and sheets. My spirits are kept up by the certainty of an Allied victory within a year (I hope!) and my wonderful life ahead with Cassie. Thoughts of her are such a comfort.”
In January 1943, Waful and the other American officers in the camp were herded onto a series of trains and moved to a POW camp in Chieti, where he found the food and entertainment much improved. He played in a dance band, and there was also a Dixie combo and a tango band. “The camp has snow-covered mountain peaks on one side and green hills resembling Burnet and Lincoln parks on the other—a lovely spot,” he wrote in his journal. “Cassie is always on my mind. I love her so very much.”
Before the war was over, Waful would also be imprisoned in Poland and Germany. In the winter of 1945, he took part in “The March” of Allied prisoners across Eastern Europe in frigid conditions. “We walked. And walked. And walked,” he says. “It was a horrible time. My legs broke down and they put me on a boxcar out of Poland and into Germany. Nothing to eat, eight days and nights in a boxcar. We finally got to where we were going, near Berlin.”
As Germany collapsed, Russians took over the camp, and a Russian officer encouraged him and several others to get out. “’Just run,’ he said, so we crawled under the barbed wire and ran,” Waful recalls. When they reached the Elbe River they could see Americans jumping and waving on the other side, but a group of Russians wouldn’t let them cross. “Fortunately we had dog tags so we could prove we were Americans,” so eventually they crossed the river and learned what the celebration was about. It was VE Day. “The Germans had signed the papers and the war was over.”
Love Among the Ruins
The escaped POWs stayed in a tent camp for injured soldiers, and Waful focused on finding Cassie. “The Red Cross—bless their hearts—set up a place in the camp to help the POWs, so I asked if they knew where I could find the Fifth General Hospital,” he says. He learned that it was currently in Southeast France. The hospital had been in the Battle of the Bulge, and Cassie had been wounded but had recovered.
The Red Cross helped him call her. “I heard Cassie’s voice, but all I knew was her location.” A reunion seemed impossible because in all the chaos surrounding the POWs and soldiers, it would take months to draw up orders and get her transferred to his area.
A week later he returned to the tent headquarters to call her again. The tent was empty except for a table with a piece of paper on it. He picked it up and saw two names written there: his own and Cassie’s. A Red Cross worker entered the tent and said, “Are you Waful? We’ve been looking for you. Cassie will be here this afternoon.”
His prayers had been answered with a miracle. “If I had gone to that tent one day earlier or one day later I would have missed her,” Waful asserts. “They named the camps after cigarettes, and this camp happened to be called ‘Lucky Strike.’ It was a real lucky strike for me.”
Soon, Cassie was in his arms. “She said, ‘Don, do you still want to get married?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I do. Right now.’”
It took them 48 hours to plan the wedding. The mayor of a village outside Paris performed the ceremony and the United States Signal Corps sent photographers. Those pictures were splashed across the front pages of the Syracuse Post-Standard and The Stars and Stripes.
Years later, the love story of Don and Cassie Waful came alive onstage in a production called “I’ll Be Seeing You,” written by Diane Tauser, a talented dramatist from New York City. It played to sold-out audiences in Philadelphia and Syracuse.
They were married for 53 years and had two sons, Don Jr. and Peter. “She was priceless,” he says. “Everybody loved Cassie. She was sweet. Charming. Competent. Just a lovely person.” Cassie was a nonpracticing Catholic when they married, but later joined his Reformed Church of Syracuse on Teall Avenue and taught Sunday School for 23 years. In 1998, Waful held his beloved Cassie’s hand as she died. “Oh, it was hard,” he says. “She has a room named after her at the church. It’s for the children. It’s called Cassie’s Place.”
Insurance, Music and Sports
They had made a home in Syracuse after their return to the U.S., and Waful’s ties to Syracuse University were instrumental in shaping a post-war life focused on community service. Before the war, Waful had toured with the Syracuse University Alumni Glee Club, and he grew quite close to Al Deisseroth, the club’s director. Deisseroth hired him to work with him at the Bruns Insurance Agency, and Waful enjoyed a long career in the insurance business. His many University-connected clients included Chancellor William Tolley and football coach Ben Schwartzwalder.
Deisseroth was also a civic leader and co-owner of the Syracuse Nationals basketball team. He orchestrated the purchase of the Syracuse Chiefs baseball club in 1961 as a publicly owned team, and Waful served as the club’s president for 35 years. Waful was instrumental in the construction of the 11,000 seat NBT Bank Stadium in 1997, and in 2010, he was inducted into the Syracuse Chiefs Baseball Wall of Fame.
But nothing could surpass Waful’s passion for football . In more than 70 years, he has missed only three home games. “I had four season seats in Archbold Stadium, and many times over the years that old Orange bowl was a snowy, wet place,” he says. “Sometimes I was the only one of the four that showed up. Sometimes Cassie went with me.”
Reigniting a Flame
A couple years after Cassie died, Waful was reminiscing with a young friend about his college days, wondering what had happened to Ginny, his Syracuse sweetheart. All Waful knew was that she was living in Atlanta. The friend did some internet research and came up with Ginny’s phone number. He called the number, handed the phone to Waful, and said “If somebody answers the phone, you talk.”
Ginny answered the phone.
He considers it something of a miracle, almost like connecting with Cassie in the Red Cross camp against all odds. “We talked,” Waful says. “She had been widowed, twice, and had two grown daughters. She invited me to come down and visit.” He took her up on it. After picking him up at the airport, they went to a neighborhood tea shop. “So we settled in for a cup of tea and just got to know each other again.”
Ginny returned the favor with a visit to Syracuse, and it didn’t take long for them to recover their feelings for each other. “We were married in Atlanta with the blessing of her daughters and their families,” he says. “They all accepted me, and they still do.”
He and Ginny were married for nine years. In 2010, just as he had done for Cassie, Waful held Ginny’s hand as she died.
His life may be slowing down, but it’s far from over. These days, he gets the royal Orange treatment for Syracuse football. “Don is a living example of a generation who put their country first, and then transformed that passion into the way they lived their life,” says Pete Sala, vice president and chief facilities officer at Syracuse University. That’s why Sala sends someone to transport Waful to the stadium for every home game. “They have a wheelchair waiting and they take me right to my seats,” Waful says. In 2014, he had the thrill of a lifetime when he was Chancellor Kent Syverud’s guest at the Syracuse-North Carolina State game.
“Don is a complete treasure,” says Jason Smorol, general manager of the Syracuse Mets baseball team. “Having gotten to know him is one of the true highlights of my life. Don was around for the creation of the Community Baseball Club of CNY, and served the club for over 50 years to make sure professional baseball was part of our community. He has given back to the community through his support of the United Way, Rescue Mission, his church, the baseball team and Syracuse University.”
Waful has a big event coming up, and he plans to enjoy it thoroughly. On September 13, he will receive the inaugural Military/Veteran Award at Syracuse University’s Alumni Awards Celebration at the OnCenter . This is a highlight of Orange Central , Syracuse University’s Homecoming and Reunion celebration.
“Syracuse University is one great big lifetime of familiarity to me,” Waful says, “I’ve seen an awful lot of medals awarded for academics and sports, but I never won one myself. Maybe it’s about time, because I’ve been around a long time. If I can use a cliché, I’m deeply honored.”
Throughout all of his life’s triumphs and tragedies, Waful’s faith has remained strong. He cherishes the little things now, like a good football game and the company of his “dear friend” Chris Cummings, a loyal companion who takes him wherever he needs to go. Waful lives alone in the house near the University that he bought with Cassie. “I thank the Lord for my life,” he says. “I’ve gotten very close to heaven.”